Friday, March 13, 1997
Wake-up call doesn't spoil
UC's dreams

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Melvin Levett shows his relief after UC's narrow victory.
(Saed Hindash photo)
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BOISE, Idaho - They will not be forced to watch the tape. There is no time for torture during the NCAA Tournament, and there is not much point in post-mortems.

Much as the University of Cincinnati Bearcats deserved to dwell on their narrow escape against Northern Arizona - to belabor their shot selection, to bemoan their inability to avoid screens - circumstances compelled them to look ahead. They returned to their hotel following Thursday's 65-62 squeaker to be briefed on a new set of scouting reports, to view videotapes of West Virginia.

There are no style points at this stage of the season. No polls. No power ratings. The only thing that counts for anything is survival. Winning ugly, therefore, can be beautiful.

''People are going to look at this game and say, 'UC had to win at the buzzer. Maybe they're not as good as we thought,' '' Bearcat guard D'Juan Baker said. ''That's not important. But if we had lost, that taste would have been in my mouth for the rest of my life.''

Barely 24 hours earlier, Baker had declared it UC's ''destiny'' to win the national championship. It was a reckless boast, one that might have haunted him had the second-seeded Bearcats lost to the 15th-seeded Lumberjacks in the first round, but it remains attainable.

A scare, not a shocker

There is a big difference between a scare and a shocker in the NCAA Tournament. One exposes flaws that might be fixed. The other leads to the packing of luggage.

With nine minutes to play Thursday afternoon, UC looked a lot like a team bound for the airport. The Lumberjacks led, 53-47, and the Bearcats had yet to find an answer to their prolific pick-setting or a consistent shooter on the offensive end.

Only the backboard dominance of Kenyon Martin and Bobby Brannen, whose 27 rebounds matched Northern Arizona's team total, spared the Bearcats a humiliating, lopsided loss.

Only Baker's three-point basket with four seconds to play prevented a perilous overtime period.

''I think it's kind of a lesson,'' Brannen said. ''We probably did come out and take them a little too lightly. We'll learn from it today, and then it's over. We have to put it behind us. In the tournament, it's all about advancing. And we advanced.''

Though the Bearcats must count themselves fortunate to still be involved in the tournament, nothing that transpired Thursday should count too heavily against them. No coach has time to implement all the intricacies of Northern Arizona's offense. The Bearcats may face more talented teams in this tournament, but none so frustrating to defend.

''Possession games like that are hard for some of our guys,'' UC coach Bob Huggins said. ''We'd rather go up and down.''

In the boxing business, they say that styles make fights. In the NCAA Tournament, unfamiliarity sometimes leads to upsets. En route to its national championship last year, Arizona narrowly beat South Alabama and the College of Charleston, and won two other games in overtime.

It is a rare team that reaches the Final Four by a succession of blowouts. UCLA, the 1995 NCAA champion, needed Tyus Edney to drive the length of the floor for a basket at the buzzer to survive a second-round game against mediocre Missouri.

Bearcats survive 'gut check'

''Games like this are a gut check,'' D'Juan Baker said Thursday. ''It shows heart. If you watch me, I'm always looking at the clock. I'm always thinking, 'We're going to find a way.'

''When Northern Arizona was ahead late in the game, I looked in all the guys' eyes, and I could see they weren't giving up. Melvin (Levett) was looking at me, and I told him, 'I know we're going to find a way.' ''

Whether Baker's words were of any real reassurance is doubtful. That his game-winning basket brought great relief to the Bearcats was obvious. Baker said it was the first time all season the Bearcats had gone to their second option on a set play instead of simply trying to create something with motion.

''We don't execute things very well,'' Huggins said. ''Part of that is my fault because I get tired of watching them play offense and start working on defense. Our offense is hard on my blood pressure.''